Heller in Pink Tights: Cukor Directs Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn in Western

George Cukor got to work with Sophia Loren in his Paramount, film, “Heller in Pink Tights,” the only Western he ever made. The label is misleading, for it was a comedy about showbusiness, with some satirical commentary about the Western genre.

The film was based on a novel by Louis L’Amour, whose romantic stories of the American frontier were quite popular. Loren was perfectly cast as Angela Rossini, the leading lady of a theatrical troupe touring the frontier. The flirtatious Rossini was inspired by the real-life actress, Adah Menken. In telling the story, Cukor’s focus was consistently on the character played by Loren. Angela charms the theater’s owner into believing that La Belle Helene, but cannot possibly violate Cheyenne’s moral standards. But she also makes trouble for the whole company in her deceptive games.

Everybody is amazed I am in a Western,” said Loren, “but why shouldn’t I I have done research and discovered there were Italian acting companies out in the West in the pioneer days.” Loren had to practice target shooting every morning at Paramount.

Shot on location in Tucson, Arizona, the film’s most remarkable feature was its visual style. Cukor devotes more time to ambiance rather than plot. The color scheme of the casino sequence gives it the aura of a fairy tale: the casino is red, the men are wearing black, but Angela’s dress is white.

Cukor artfully conveys the peculiar magic of the theater as a way of life. Indeed, the best sequences are the theatrical presentations of the operettas, Mazeppa and La Belle Helene. The latter is amusing, because of its mixture of styles: Angela is in a white wig and a togalike costume, and Tom wears a military uniform of unspecified era.

“Heller in Pink Tights was an unfortunate film,” said Anthony Quinn, who played Tom, the theater’s manager. “George was a man of great substance, but even a comedy had to have contents for him, and contents were missing from this movie.” Quinn never understood why he was asked to be in the picture in the first place. “I was basically playing a homosexual,” he said.

“Cukor worked more with Sophia Loren than with me,” recalled Quinn, “maybe it was the role, or maybe she was more demanding of his attention than I was.” By this time, Cukor had become a master of how to introduce his female stars.

The first glimpse of Loren begins with a detail shot of a woman’s foot in an elegant shoe. The camera tilts up from the shoe to her face, as she is stepping out of the wagon to greet Cheyenne’s residents. Tom introduces the troupe, saving Angela for last, as Angela is introduced, Cukor cuts to a closeup of her face. Angela titillates the crowd with a succession of colored scarves, revealing her beautiful face only in the splitsecond intervals between scarves. Angela embodies the spirit of play onstage as well as off.

In the beginning of the movie, the troupe is forced to flee the last town it played, because of controversy over some missing funds. Similarly, in the end, the company has to leave town to avoid trouble, after the theater’s safe is robbed.

Throughout, there are some witty exchanges between a hard-edged aging actress (Eileen Heckart) and the company’s ingenue (Margaret O’Brien). In an hilarious shot, the women prepare to leave town with as much of the company’s costumes on them as possible.

In the last sequence, the company puts on another performance of Mazeppa. The spectacular climax involves Mazeppa, played by Angela, mounting a horse and riding off the stage. To escape from his persecutor, the gunslinger, also puts on Angela’s costume and wig, and rides out of the theater.

Cukor had a lot of fun making “Heller in Pink Tights,” though he resented Paramount’s pressure on him to speed up the action and to change the focus.

The final version is not the film Cukor shot–he complained about the studio’s stupid cuts and senseless snips, which resulted in a clouded story.  However, when the movie failed at the box-office, the studio blamed Cukor.